Scribble manoeuvres: Using handwriting to catch wrongdoers

Akshaya Krishnan

Vedika Basu















April 4, 1974. Kathryn and her brother, Kevin Bright, returned to their home to find a man pointing his gun at them. He forced the two of them into the bedroom and tied Kathryn’s hands and feet. He took Kevin to the bedroom, where a struggled continued, resulting in the assailant shooting him in the head. He went back to the bedroom and finished the job, by strangling and stabbing Kathryn until she died. Miraculously, Kevin survived the gunshot and managed to escape to call the police.

This tragic homicide was the second act of violence initiated by Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK, or Blind, torture, kill, killer. Few months after this, the BTK killer went public. He placed a letter in a library book taking responsibility for his first murder. Rader wrote, "It's hard to control myself. You probably call me 'psychotic with sexual perversion hang-up.'" He warned that he would strike again, noting, "The code words for me will be bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K."

Despite his cat-and-mouse game with authorities, Rader was able to keep the lid on his secret, murderous life. Reportedly an attentive husband, he and his wife had a son in 1975 and a daughter in 1978. The next year, Rader graduated from Wichita State University with a degree in administration of justice. He continued to taunt authorities for many more years.

Handwriting analysis, also called graphology, is the study of the characteristics and strokes of a person’s handwriting. Graphology can be used in a variety of ways, such as attributing old manuscripts to specific authors, helping behaviourists build a psychological profile of an unknown person and to help solve crimes. Handwriting analysts are often called upon to help law enforcement, private investigators, fraud investigators and forensics examiners to evaluate handwriting on documents or sets of documents to either match them to a single writer or to help identify characteristics of the individual to assist in narrowing in on suspects.

The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, murdered at least ten people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991. He sent numerous letters to police and various media outlets taunting them to find him and providing graphic details, photographs and other evidence proving the writer of the letters as the killer. The letters suddenly stopped and another was not received until more than a decade later in 2004. A combination of DNA evidence, a floppy disk and handwriting analysis of Rader’s many letters to police, to the media and those left in public places for passers-by to find led to his arrest and conviction in 2005.

Forensic investigators use handwriting pattern/technology to determine personality traits of an individual. Analysing the perpetuator’s handwriting can be extremely useful in kidnapping cases, where developing a profile of the kidnapped is crucial to save the hostage.

There are two ways to carry out the handwriting analysis with the intend to determine personality traits through it; there is the manual way, and there is the automatic analysis done by a computer.

Manual analysis relies on the observations of the graphologist. They look for specific features in the sample such as word and line spacing, page margins or alignment. For instance, it is said that if there are large spaces between words, the writer generally avoids crowds and usually spends sometime alone. The amount of pressure the person exerts on the pen also tells us a lot. People who are very emotional at the time tend to exert a lot of pen pressure, whereas people who write smoothly are empathetic and sensitive.

Some analytic graphologists also interpret large handwriting as a sign of ambition and small handwriting as a sign of pedantry.

As for automatic analysis done by a computer, there are many software programs that help graphologists assess handwriting more efficiently. Computer aided graphology (CAG) system is one of the systems which enables the graphologist to take advantage of computer in order to achieve faster and error free analysis of handwriting and to obtain the personality description of the writers on the basis of the analysis. 

Although handwriting analysis may not be an accurate reflection of all the traits in a person, it is generally looked at as an extremely useful tool in helping with investigations. To state it truthfully, it should not be looked at as a complete picture of personality; personality is a highly complex concept and depends on a lot of factors. This analysis is simply a tool in the toolbox; it needs to be supplemented with other facts as well, in order for all the pieces to fit.

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Illustrated by Ira Swati Manish